It is easy to get political poetry wrong. It is difficult to strike the right chord when sending wholesale criticism toward powerful figures, however worthy of targeting they may be. And in Trump-dominated America, the landscape at times feels dredged in criticism, the same drumbeat beginning to vex my ears. So it is a blessed release to find the right mixture of deftness and vitriol in Austin Davis’ short, incendiary book of political poetry titled Second Civil War.
The Poem as Spotlight
The book’s dedication calls on every citizen to “Love each other,” which instead of functioning as some cheap ploy, is the perfect setup to these forceful poems that punch yet do so with a vengeful love of humanity and what humanity is capable of, no matter how fallen we might seem currently. I find his opening call to love more radical than the angriest protest, for it is that blend of brotherhood with accusation that allows a poem such as “Flying Home From Indiana After Driving Past the KKK House in Irvington” to hit home and take root in a reader’s soul. That poem alone removes Davis from the sometimes-indecipherable pack and makes him a voice worth paying attention to.
In “Trading Flesh For Metal”, he tackles the omnipresent shroud of school shootings with a type of morbid tongue-in-cheekery that is blackly convicting of our country’s ailments when he says, “someone better add / “20% chance of death” / to the weather forecast / on the school announcements / every morning.” Such stark lines make it hard to see the opposition as anything but morally inept. The poem becomes spotlight through subtle juxtaposition.
This short collection whirls the reader through starkly worded condemnations and where fear does invade, such as the final lines of the title poem, “Or maybe I’ll blink / and all my friends will be dead,” the fear acts as catalyst. These are poems you cannot walk away from. Once read, they are lodged in your pocket like a rough stone, something to reach down and remember when the walk becomes long. Because it will. In “Buy One Book on Assault Rifles, Get One ‘Learn How to not be a Dickhead’ Pamphlet Free”, Davis closes the poem by saying “compassion and empathy are just two dreams you’ve mostly forgotten.”
Some days, it is poems like these that I need to remind me it is not too late for compassion and empathy, no matter how much the powerful would have us forget them.